Connecticut Sues Over NCLB
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RAY SUAREZ: As America’s children get ready for a new school year, what’s happening in their classrooms is heading for a federal court docket.
TEACHER: What’s the first word that starts a predicate?
RAY SUAREZ: Connecticut is the first state to file a suit challenging the federal No Child Left Behind law. At least two other states are considering filing lawsuits this year, and many states have spoken out against the law. Connecticut State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced the action.
RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Our message today is give up the unfunded mandates or give us the money. Live up to the promise of this law: Show us flexibility or show us the money. Our problem is not with the goal of No Child Left Behind; it is with the failed implementation.
RAY SUAREZ: No Child Left Behind was signed into law by President Bush more than three years ago, amidst complaints from some lawmakers and educators it would be too costly and too difficult to enforce.
The law aims to have every public school student proficient in reading and math by 2014. And it was designed to improve both students and teachers, in part by penalizing schools where standardized test scores don’t improve rapidly enough.
Connecticut’s main gripe with the law is over those standardized tests and who will pay for them. Connecticut students already take tests in fourth, sixth and eighth grade, but under No Child Left Behind the state must also test them in grades three, five and seven beginning this school year. More than 25 states are considering legislation critical of No Child Left Behind. And the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, filed suit last spring on behalf of ten of its chapters and local school districts. Utah’s state legislature passed a measure in may defying the federal law, and Colorado has also given its school districts the choice of opting out.
RAY SUAREZ: Two perspectives on No Child Left Behind and the criticism surrounding it: Betty Sternberg is the commissioner of education for the State of Connecticut and Sandy Kress served as senior education advisor to President Bush and led negotiations on the No Child Left Behind act with Congress in 2001. He’s now a lawyer with the firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, and Feld in Austin.
Commissioner Sternberg, let me start with you. Why, after threatening suit earlier in the year did you have to follow through in August and go ahead and sue the federal government?
BETTY STERNBERG: Well, first of all, let me emphasize that we certainly agree with the goals of No Child Left Behind. However, the great specificity of the law and in particular the specificity around how often tests must be given is a concern to us. We did a cost study which was required by our state legislature, and in the main after assessing all the costs of the requirements of NCLB and subtracting out all the applicable federal revenue that came to us, there was a $41.6 million shortfall overall for all the requirements of NCLB and a subset of that is an $8 million shortfall for the assessments in particular.
RAY SUAREZ: So you’re saying that given the money that you’re getting from Washington, there was no way that you could do what the No Child Left Behind Act asks or demands of Connecticut?
BETTY STERNBERG: We would have to use state money in order to meet the demands and I think it’s a right and responsibility of the state to question those costs particularly if we have some concern about the educational validity of some of those requirements.
RAY SUAREZ: Sandy Kress, right now Connecticut tests every other year No Child Left Behind asks that they test every year. What was the thinking behind that requirement?
SANDY KRESS: Ray, the bottom line is that parents want to know how their children are doing each year. A youngster in the 5th grade in Connecticut or elsewhere, the parent wants to know, did they meet the standards? Did they meet up to the requirements? They don’t want to have to wait from the fourth to the sixth grade. This was a central pillar of No Child Left Behind. Most of the states that have gone to annual testing have found that their parents, their taxpayers, the public has information about how successful the program is, how effectively the dollars are being spent. This was a central element of No Child Left Behind that drew 80 plus percent of Democrats and Republicans, including the two senators from Connecticut.
This is no surprise to Connecticut. They’ve received almost three quarters of a billion dollars in No Child Left Behind money since the law was signed in 2002, 40 percent increase than in previous periods. They could have chosen not to take the federal funds and not to have these requirements. But they’d been getting paid money, not just general money, Title I money, they had been getting paid money for these tests in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and now all of a sudden, they sue the federal government. If they didn’t want to do these tests, they shouldn’t have taken the money or they presumably could have sued at the beginning. But they’ve taken all the money and now all of a sudden they’re suing the federal government.
RAY SUAREZ: But didn’t the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Kress, specify when it was passed that there could be local responses and local methods fashioned for meeting the requirements of the Act?
SANDY KRESS: Absolutely. There’s a great deal of variation across the country in how to meet the Act. Each state gets to set its own standard. Each state gets to pick its own test. Each state gets to determine what proficient on the test means. States and local districts get to make all kinds of decisions. The one central part though was that parents and taxpayers and the public and the press have a right to know every year whether children are making it or not.
SANDY KRESS: Connecticut has the second worst, largest black-white achievement gap in the country. If I were an African-American parent in Hartford or New Haven, I’d want to know whether my child fell further behind in the fifth grade between the fourth and the sixth grade tests. That’s exactly — it’s closing that gap that exists in Connecticut not because all the kids are doing well but because the minority kids are doing worse than say here in Texas by significant margins. That was the purpose of No Child Left Behind. And I wish Connecticut and Commissioner Sternberg would weed their own garden instead of suing the federal government.
RAY SUAREZ: Commissioner, how do you respond to that? If you didn’t want to follow the rules you shouldn’t have taken the money, says Sandy Kress.
BETTY STERNBERG: We cannot afford to not take the federal funds. They are extremely useful. There is about $336 million that comes to our most needy districts in this state. It is not a reality to do that. We don’t want to hurt our youngsters. I want to address the gap issue. What you have to do is look at NAPE, National Assessment of Educational Progress data and their data site. Why don’t you look at the states where there is a small gap, less than 20 points? There are six of them in this nation. And when you really look at the reason why, actually our black students do no more poorly — and it’s sad because black students across the nation do poorly — but our black students are scoring at the same level that other black students are across the nation.
But what happens is in those six states where there’s a small gap, their white students are scoring significantly lower than Connecticut’s white students. We have a national problem around the gap. And we know where the problems are already. We don’t have to test more to know where the problems are. We have to provide programs that will really get at addressing that gap.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Sandy Kress, Connecticut was testing long before No Child Left Behind. And you just heard the commissioner; they say they’re finding out what they need to know in order to craft an educational response to the problems inside their state. But that’s not good enough?
SANDY KRESS: Well, again, as I said, Ray, there’s lots of flexibility in this Act for Connecticut to do what it wants. They can do formative testing. They can do more in-depth testing. They can do testing by the way they can insist upon their contractor coming back faster than four months. They can do lots of things. The point is that parents and taxpayers want to know each year on a comparable assessment how youngsters are doing.
The problem in Connecticut, unfortunately for Commissioner Sternberg, is that the minority results are not what she says. I did an analysis last night of how African-American and Latino youngsters in Connecticut are doing against their peers in Texas, for example. If you look at the science, math, reading and writing tests, the most recent NAPE tests that have been given, Texas minority youngsters doing better in thirteen out of sixteen comparisons. I’m not trying to brag on Texas; we’ve got a long way to go here.
But that gap is not just because white students are doing so well in Connecticut. It’s because minority students are doing poorly. And I would venture to say that if I were an African-American mom or dad in one of the cities in Connecticut, I wouldn’t want to go two years without knowing how my child was doing against the standards that were set in a comparable fashion the previous year. This is a central part of No Child Left Behind. It is what the funding is there for.
Again, if Ms. Sternberg disagrees with that, she didn’t have to take the money. She took the money and now wants to say somehow that this central provision in the Act should be waived. That’s what happened before No Child Left Behind. That’s why we have achievement gaps in our country. And that’s why states like Texas and others that have implemented these reforms are seeing dramatic gains in their student achievement. Again the funding was for these reforms and if Commissioner Sternberg is not interested in the reforms, she should not be taking the funding.
RAY SUAREZ: Commissioner, no other states joined Connecticut in this effort. Why not? And what have you heard from them?
BETTY STERNBERG: My understanding is, first of all, they’re not quite ready. They want to be absolutely sure that they have a solid cost study as we do. I believe that there are at least five or six states that will over the course of the next months join us. In particular I think there are a number that are ready to go quite soon.
RAY SUAREZ: Commissioner Sternberg is in Hartford, Sandy Kress is in Austin; thank you both.